Call to Ministry Series: #5 The Call of Moses
June 6, 2012
The call of Moses in Exodus 3-4 presents almost all elements related to call found in scripture. The burning bush attracts his attention; he turns aside to see the sight and meets God. God opens his heart to Moses. He assigns him the task to lead Israel out of Egypt. Moses dialogues with God, raising four objections, finally refusing to go. In the end of the scene, the Lord doesn't accept such a response.
Read Exodus 3:1-6
Our world teems with attention-getting devices. Commercials on television, advertisements in magazines and newspapers, billboards, labels on products, popups on web sites, and hundreds of other approaches invade our attention from every angle.
Of course, we get so inundated that we turn off the outside noise. Spouses complain how their partners ignore them when they are talking. Parents feel the same way with a child who doesn't respond to the first, second, third or more invitations to dinner. My grandfather grew up in Missouri on a farm and used to say that mules weren't so ornery if you knew how to get their attention. His remedy was a two-by-four between the eyes. He could be pretty ornery himself. I often thought we needed some way to arrest his attention.
On many occasions in the Bible, God grabs a person's attention with some dramatic phenomenon. In this case, Moses sees a bush that is burning, but is not consumed by the fire. He sees fire, but no smoke. He will find more than he imagined.
Moses didn't start in the desert, herding sheep. Born in a Hebrew home in Egypt, spared by pharaoh's daughter at a time of infanticide, raised under the protection of her home, he had tried a deliverer's role by killing an Egyptian who had beaten a fellow Hebrew. Subsequently he fled for his life when his deed came to light. Instead of being a hero, he became a murderer on the run from the Egyptians, skulking in the backwoods of that part of the world, far from civilization. His actions, as terrible as they were, foreshadowed his life mission, but its start came at the wrong time and with the wrong power. Timing is crucial to God's plan.
Moses settled in Midian, a desert land with scattered peoples living a pastoral life, i.e., taking care of livestock. We still have difficulty identifying exactly the land called "Midian" because it was in the middle of nowhere, probably somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula. He married into a local clan headed by Jethro and herded his father-in-law's sheep. Many years went by (Ex 2:23). When the king of Egypt died, God heard the plight of the Israelites and turned to Moses (3:1). He was evidently in a lonely area "beyond the wilderness," perhaps to the west of Midian where grass existed for the sheep. Many desert lands produce green grass for a brief time every year. The shepherd seeks the pasturage at the correct time. So Moses came to the area of Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a burning bush.
When herding sheep in a lonely place, things can get pretty boring. You sit watching the sheep hunt for grass, once in awhile throwing a rock at an errant animal to get it back in line with the others. A burning, unconsumed bush would prove more interesting by a long ways.
The text says that an "angel of the LORD (Yhwh)" appeared in a flaming fire. God chooses to reveal himself through this messenger who takes the form of fire. The bush and the fire become the means for the attention-getting episode.
Moses turns aside to see the sight. He wants to look more closely at what he perceives to be an unusual occurrence, a bush that was burning and was not being destroyed. All kinds of explanations have been offered to explain this event by natural means. It doesn't really matter what was taking place to draw Moses' attention since the text never explains the phenomenon. However, it does grab his interest.
At that moment, God called to Moses, twice shouting his name in urgency. Moses answered, "Here I am!" Perhaps he craned his neck from side to side to find who had called him. He has no time to think about it because God tells him to kick off his sandals for the place is holy. Sandals were worn to keep the feet from harm, but they were an insult to sacred ground because of where they had been (cf. Josh 5:15). Who knows what unclean or unholy things the sandals might have touched? We assume Moses obeyed because the voice goes on to disclose that he is the God of Moses' ancestors. With this revelation, Moses hides his face in fear and reverence (see similar language in 1 Kings 19:13 and Isa 6:2).
This event speaks to Moses in several ways. First, he is obviously the person that God wants for the task of leading Israel to deliverance from Egypt. Who else sees such a spectacle? Who else hears the voice of God speaking in that lonely place? We don't know whether God tried other attention-getting devices at that time on other people for the same purpose, but we do know what Moses saw and how he became Israel's leader subsequently.
Second, God "speaks" to Moses, warning him about the sacred place and revealing whom it was speaking to him. Moses becomes "the" mediator of God's instructions to his people in the Old Testament. No one else fills such a place of authority. The events that follow from the book of Exodus through the book of Deuteronomy show God speaking through this man, this individual (Ex 20:19; Deut 31:24). His name remains attached to God's revelation in the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. He receives the written and oral law from the hand and mouth of God, and passes it on to Israel.
And it all started with the divine encounter.
What can we learn that will transfer to our understanding of call?
First, God secured Moses' attention. As if the fire-filled, non-burning bush was not enough, God also speaks directly to Moses. The scene opens with an act that captures Moses' attention. In biblical accounts we often find some remarkable event arresting the main character's attention. What does this scene tell us?
God used something natural to the surroundings to turn Moses aside. In such an arid desert bushes are uncommon. They occur, but they do not make up a huge forest. They are easy to see. If they are on fire and they are not consumed, a person's attention may be more drawn to the sight. Our problem is "seeing" what may be there naturally. Mary Oliver finishes a brief poem entitled "Look and See" with the line, "Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we only look, and see" (Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early [Boston: Beacon Press, 2004] 26).
Then God speaks, telling Moses it is holy ground. Any place where God shows up may be considered holy ground. In ancient times sites could be described as holy for one person without another person realizing it. Abram set up a witness to a holy place, but after years and years, the stones of witness could look like all the other stones in a place. Some interpreters want to find that kind of occurrence in this text. Holy ground occurs when we listen to God speaking into our lives. We are too busy, too hard of hearing because of the torrent of extraneous noises, too motivated by lesser priorities, to hear God speak to us and thus convert our places in life into a holy place.
We should expect to have our focus arrested by God. God will find a way to get our attention. We need to "see."